Winter had arrived in the Carolinas with all the brutality it could muster. The wind was cold and unforgiving finding its way through the cracks in the walls and floors of the shotgun shack. The sisters and brothers were all under layers of handmade quilts with heated bricks down by their feet to keep them warm. All of them were crammed into two beds and snuggled close together. Granddaddy had the small bedroom at the back of the shack and slept on a fold-out cot. He stacked the logs in the potbelly wood stove for the night and it burned hot with parts of the grill glowing red like it was alive and frightening.
Grandma had passed away in the spring and it was up to Granddaddy along with the oldest sister Adeline to raise the kids. Granddaddy was a sharecropper, so they had never known a true home. They traveled from farm to farm as work was available. The farmer was kind enough to give them food to help get through the bitter winter that had settled upon the farms. Everything was barren and there was no windbreak of trees to shield the small shack from the wind, rain and possible snows. The farm was desolate this time of year and all you could do was hunker down.
They glued old newspapers and cardboard from old boxes to the wall to cover the cracks in the walls and windows. Granddaddy kept a fire in the woodstove for coffee which came from a big tin canister that the farmer had given him. It was big enough to last the winter. They also had a twenty-five-pound bag of flour for biscuits and big jugs of syrup. The farmer said they could get bacon from his smokehouse as he had plenty.
Adeline knew Granddaddy was not well and she didn’t know how many years he had left to work the farm, surely not many.
She knew that when he was gone, she would bear the burden she felt so unprepared for. He talked to her well into the nights sharing the stories of his family, the folklore, the healing and how to make the food stretch to feed his brood. This was knowledge she would need sooner than she could know.
Adeline sat by his side well into the night giving him heated milk to help him sleep. The wind would howl outside shaking the tiny house and she knew the spirits were just outside the tree line waiting for him. They would wait as long as needed to help him with his coming journey. They would know when he was ready.
They were not in any hurry as time was meaningless to them. They had been with granddaddy his whole life waiting for this day. She pulled his covers around him tightly trying to keep him warm and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, falling asleep in the old rocking chair. She couldn’t hear them come when they entered the room touching his spirit, taking him to the banks of the river where they paid the ferryman to take him across. They never spoke just bowed their heads, silent sentinels, watching him cross the river.
When Adaline woke, she knew he was gone. He wore a slight smile on his face, his pain gone, and his story finished. She would sit with him until the dawn when the sun would bring hope and she would leave her childhood behind, leading her family to a new life.
Life was hard those many years ago, yet courage was abundant, and people did what needed doing. It was expected and it was embraced. Farming was done by every member of the family and taking care of the family fell on everyone’s shoulder. It seemed even the youngest bore the burden on broad shoulders.